Should My Ferret Receive Vaccinations?
Which Ones Should It Get?
You can read about possible vaccine reactions in ferrets here.
For vaccinations available for your ferret in late 2014, go here
Ron Hines DVM PhD
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Canine Distemper is the first. It is always fatal when ferrets catch it and we have a good way to prevent it.
The second is Rabies. Rabies is very unlikely to affect your ferret but because it is almost always fatal in humans, the law requires it.
Canine Distemper In Ferrets:
Please read my companion article, Distemper & Vaccine Reactions In Ferrets.
Unvaccinated ferrets are very susceptible to the distemper virus of dogs. Cats get another form of distemper that ferrets do not catch.
The distemper virus is an RNA virus of a type that does not survive more than a half hour in the environment. So to get it, your ferret would have to be exposed to another animal that had the disease. This could be a sick dog or another ferret. You are highly unlikely to track it into the house unless you frequent locations that commonly have lots of animals or sick animals.
Distemper is spread when infected animals sneeze and cough . It has an incubation period of 6-9 days. Ferrets that catch distemper become depressed. They develop a skin rash, nasal and eye discharges and eventually nerve degeneration. There is no successful treatment. Early signs can be mistaken for human influenza to which ferrets are also susceptible.
Many authorities suggest that ferrets receive their first distemper vaccination at 6-8 weeks and a booster vaccination at 10-12 weeks. Some give a third vaccination at 14-16 weeks of age. They are then generally given a yearly distemper booster vaccination. I do not agree with this. First of all, ferrets do not develop good levels of immunity when they are only 6-8 weeks old. Under 12 wks, maternal antibody prevents the vaccine from working (ref). Also, multiple vaccinations make it more likely that ferrets have serious or fatal vaccine reactions. The risks involved to your pet from too many vaccinations are much higher than the risks of it developing distemper so young. If your pet already has the virus in its system when you purchase it - the vaccine will not help. If it doesn't - just keep it isolated until it is old enough to benefit from the vaccinations.
Which Vaccine Is Best?
My preference is to use Purevax Ferret Distemper Vaccine. It is manufactured by Merial. Inc. If you have specific questions about the vaccine, you can call them at (678) 638 3000. The vaccine maker suggests that it be given to your pet at 8, 11 and 14 weeks of age and yearly thereafter. I give the vaccination at 10 and 14 weeks and feel quite confident. Never vaccinate pregnant female ferrets.
Throughout 2013 and 2014, veterinarians experienced long periods when Merial's PUREVAX® FERRET distemper vaccine was unavailable. As of September, 2014, We do not know when (or if) it will return to the market. During this period, many veterinarians have switched to immunizing ferrets with Merck's Nobivac® Puppy-DPv, a vaccine that has been used successfully in ferrets in Europe and the UK for many years.
How Often Should My Ferret Receive Vaccinations Against Distemper?
I know of no scientific studies that have been conducted on the length of immunity these vaccines produce ferrets. But for most dogs, cats and other mammals, these type of vaccines induces an immunity that lasts for an extended period – in many instances over four years.
Merial has concluded that their ferret distemper vaccine will protect your pet for a minimum of one year. So it suggests yearly revaccination. There are a number of non-medical reasons for this.
There are medical reasons as well: If your ferret is at higher-than-normal risk, if there is some indication that it's previous vaccination was not effective, if it did not receive the required 2-shot series as a youngster, if it received a non-approved vaccine, if the vaccine was not given or stored appropriated,or if the ferret's blood titer against distemper is low, then it should be revaccinated. Otherwise, I suggest it be vaccinated every 2-3 years against canine distemper.
The Need For Booster Vaccinations By Serum Titer:
Should I Have My Ferret Vaccinated Against Rabies And How Often?
Yes, your ferret should receive a rabies vaccination as frequently as your State requires. By law, most states and federal public health authorities require a yearly rabies vaccination for ferrets - even though studies have shown that many of the rabies vaccines we use give us longer protection. Public health authorities practice Better-Safe-Than-Sorry Medicine. They are entirely justified in doing so. Rabies is a terrible disease when it affects people or animals and we are all terrified of it. The vaccine of choice is Imrab-3 by Merial.
But it is extremely unlikely that your pet will develop rabies. Only six cases of rabies were diagnosed in ferrets in the 12 -year period between 1980 and 2002 . This is during a period when it was estimated that there were between 8 and 10 million pet ferrets in the United States. In 2006, the last year that CDC data is available, 1 ferret was reported rabid in the United States. In that same year there were 6,940 diagnosed cases in animals other than ferrets. As far as I have been able to determine, there has never been a known transmission of rabies from a ferret to a human.
What Are The Risks Of Vaccination:
Unfortunately, ferrets seem to have bad reactions to vaccination more frequently than dogs or cats. When the reaction is immediate, these pets develop facial puffiness, diarrhea and vomiting, lethargy, fevers, itching, and , sometimes collapse. The gums of these pets become very pale as their circulatory system collapses. These reactions are occasionally fatal.
These reactions usually begin within a few minutes of the shot - but they can occur for up to 8 hours. Repeated vaccination of these pets should never be attempted. Their lifestyles need to be altered so that additional vaccinations become unnecessary.
If I am suspicious that a ferret might have a reaction to a particular vaccine, I pre-administer antihistamines (Benadryl) and give a minute test dose of 0.05ml of the vaccine. If the ferret is normal thirty minutes after the test dose I give it the remaining one-milliliter. Some veterinarians pre-medicate all ferrets with antihistamine. Even giving a minute test dose is not risk free.
It is safest if your pet does not receive more than one vaccination in a given week. After it receives it shot, stay in the waiting room for at least a 30 minutes and observe your pet to be sure it is OK. While you are waiting, do not let the ferret roam around the waiting room or introduce itself to other pets.
What Can Be Done If My Pet Has An Anaphylactic Reaction?
Ferrets that show any signs of an impending vaccine reaction immediately receive an injection of antihistamine, epinephrine and oxygen via a face mask or oxygen box depending on your veterinarian's assessment of the seriousness of the situation. The pet's body temperature may drop, or it may become very high. Which-ever, it needs to be brought back to the normal range (about 103F, 39.4C). If the ferret does not immediately begin to revive, it will need intravenous fluids and possibly steroids and additional medications to save its life. We do not save all of them.
These acute allergies or anaphylactic reactions are due to the ferret’s body becoming sensitized to ingredients in the vaccine. It is not the actual virus protein, needed to immunize the ferret, that causes the reaction but other ingredients used in the propagation of the distemper or rabies virus or used to preserve and fortify the vaccine.
Occasional ferrets will develop a hard lump where the shot was administered. These are usually sterile areas of inflammation in response to ingredients in the vaccine. Occasionally, they form because a hair or small plug of skin was carried in with the needle. Most subside without treatment.
My suggestions are for owners of pet ferrets in typical household situations. They are not for ferret breeders or people who keep large numbers of ferrets , nor for pet shops, ranchers, shelter or pet show conditions. In those situations, the likely hood of exposure is much greater, the likelihood of a weakened immune system is greater and distemper virus exposure can be massive enough to override the animal's immunity.